Product Simplicity: How to scale with elegance by staying true to the building blocks of your product


Hieroglyphics written in blue marker were barely legible bandwagoners in the corner of the whiteboard. We’d just finished another product strategy brainstorm at Facebook and, per usual, there was no shortage of ideas from the room full of designers, engineers, data scientists, and product marketers and managers. So many people problems! So many systems considerations! So many competitive features! It’s easy to spiral into a new, innovative idea that everyone is excited about but may turn out to be an off-strategy disaster that confuses your users.

When your product scales and extends into more markets globally, the list of considerations that must be taken into account grows exponentially. Language considerations, cultural nuances, iconography consistency…put a bunch of smart product thinkers into a room and the list is endless.

As a product leader, your job is to simplify. And what is simplicity at its core? Simplicity is clarity. It’s well-studied understanding and acceptance of how your product serves people and how people currently use it. How can you get to this nirvana of lucidity? As the advocate for the people using your product, you must know the following things:

1. Know And Honor Your Product Building Blocks

Every (usable) product has several design building blocks that compose the structure of the system. For example, Facebook has a feed, which is composed of stories that are generated by people and pages. Those are the foundations that make the system work with efficacy. We wouldn’t just suddenly introduce making reservations at restaurants as a standalone feature. Hypothetically however, if we were to introduce reservations, we would stay true to the building blocks of Facebook by adding a feature to allow people to make reservations from their profiles, which would then generate a story within feed (a completely hypothetical and random example by the way). Always start with these building blocks as the foundation for new features and experiences within that system.

For Uber, the building blocks are rider profiles, driver profiles, destination end points, and pricing. For Spotify, the building blocks are user profiles, artist profiles, playlists, radio, and library. For Netflix, the building blocks are user profiles, recommendation rows, and show pages. What are the building blocks for your product? Where might you be straying from them and spiraling into feature bloat?

2. Focus On Systems, Not Features

Especially for platforms, it’s important to not get fancy and begin accessorizing with what I like to call “trendy” features. It’s easy to fall in love with a clever, pretty, or fun feature that may not be fundamentally coherent with the overall platform architecture. For example, a well-designed slick graphic that animates beautifully but doesn’t adhere to the building blocks of your system may look cool but is likely be entirely lost on the user.

Feature bloat is your enemy. Simplicity is your friend. Only add elements that logically and usefully leverage the existing strengths of your system. Spotify does a great job at this, by combining artist profiles (building block) and playlists (building block) to launch a new feature of playlists curated by artists (combination of two existing building blocks within system that is logical, functional, and useful to both artists and listeners). Are all the features you’re thinking about introducing tied to the existing system? Where can you leverage your building blocks to create unique new features by combining them in ways no competitor can?

3. Use The Design Language Your Users Recognize

How your building blocks are represented through your product should remain consistent, down to the details. This is crucial to preserve visual simplicity that makes it effortless for your users to breezily accomplish their tasks and seamlessly satisfy their needs. If you have profile avatars represented as circles, keep them circles. If your emojis pop out in a tray with rounded edges horizontally upon a tap of a button, make sure that interaction is consistent throughout your product, anytime emojis can be accessed. If you use the word “add” in one part of the product for a specific interaction, be sure a different word isn’t used for that same interaction somewhere else in the product.

This sounds easy in theory, but as teams grow, products become more complex, and experiments run rampant, it’s important to continually audit for consistency. One way to hold yourself and your team accountable is to build a style guide, which is essentially a list of visual design elements and interactions with corresponding words organized like a book of product grammar. Interrogate new design elements that stray from the style guide to be honest about whether that shift is necessary or helpful.

One Rule To Rule All The Rules

Stick to the first principles of your product. Brainstorms are fun! Experiments are exciting! But getting caught up in a heady party of ideas without being disciplined is a dangerous cocktail that will lead to feature frenzy. Being clear about the building blocks of your product, focusing on how the building blocks work together within the system, and being consistent with your design language will ensure that the experience you create for your users feels magically effortless and coherent.

Victoria YoungComment